Monday, 26 January 2015

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)



It probably doesn't say anything good about western culture that this 1959 film has a more even-handed approach to gender politics than most films from the 80s.  Don't mistake this for it being enlightened, of course - it's not.  But feisty widow Carla Coetabaug gets her moments to shine, and she's not constantly needing to be rescued.  Thumbs up to the scriptwriters for that (and since she's not in the original story, it is the scriptwriters who deserve the credit).

Obviously, this is based on the Jules Verne novel, though a number of changes are made to that story, above and beyond the addition of Ms Coetabaug.  Firstly, the German protagonists of the novel become Scottish in the film.  I've seen claims this was done because the Scots were considered the best field geologists by the time the film was made, but I subscribe to the rather more prosaic explanation that a German hero was not going to fly in 1959.

The second change is that the expedition is given a human antagonist.  This is the leader of a rival expedition, who murders Carla's husband and thus leads to her involvement in the plot.  I'm ambivalent about the addition of the villain.  I think the film is at its best when it is pitting the adventurers against the natural dangers they encounter, and his eventual exit from the film is rather weak.  It's also a bit of a worry that - during the brief period where the two groups join forces - the villain is the one who takes the dangers and opportunities of the expedition most seriously.  The script pretty much has to make him a reprehensible jerk to stop you from saying "that guy should probably be in charge".

The plot also has a number of amendments from Veren's original tale, mostly reducing the number of monstrous creatures encountered by the group.  The film features only one such sequence instead of several, and given the goofiness of the "Dimetrodons" as they appear on screen, that was probably a smart decision.

I won't bother to go into any great detail about the story: this is one of those tales where the plot is in the title.  A scientific expedition plunges deep below the surface of the Earth and uncovers a strange and wondrous realm of undiscovered minerals, flora and fauna.  They even stumble across the sunken remains of Atlantis.  It's a pretty silly affair, but it benefits from the fact that the script manages to be lighthearted without mocking itself.  A solid cast doesn't hurt matters, either.

The film's a bit dated these days, but it remains at its heart a rollicking if improbable adventure story.  Good family-friendly entertainment.

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